How Real-Life Science Inspired Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851)
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851)
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, published 200 years ago this year, is often called the first modern work of science fiction. It's also become a fixture of pop culture—so much so that even people who haven't read it know (or think they know) the story: An ambitious young scientist named Victor Frankenstein creates a grotesque but vaguely human creature from the spare parts of corpses, but he loses control of his creation, and chaos ensues. It's a wildly inventive tale, one that flowed from an exceptional young woman's imagination and, at the same time, reflected the anxieties over new ideas and new scientific knowledge that were about to transform the very fabric of life in the 19th century.

The woman we remember as Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the daughter of political philosopher William Godwin and philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (who tragically died shortly after Mary's birth). Hers was a hyper-literate household attuned to the latest scientific quests, and her parents (Godwin soon remarried) hosted many intellectual visitors. One was a scientist and inventor named William Nicholson, who wrote extensively on chemistry and on the scientific method. Another was the polymath Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles.

At just 16 years old, Mary ran off with poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was married at the time. A Cambridge graduate, Percy was a keen amateur scientist who studied the properties of gases and the chemical make-up of food. He was especially interested in electricity, even performing an experiment reminiscent of Benjamin Franklin's famous kite test.

The genesis of Frankenstein can be traced back to 1816, when the couple spent the summer at a country house on Lake Geneva, in Switzerland. Lord Byron, the famous poet, was in a villa nearby, accompanied by a young doctor friend, John Polidori. The weather was miserable that summer. (We now know the cause: In 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted, spewing dust and smoke into the air which then circulated around the world, blotting out the Sun for weeks on end, and triggering widespread crop failure; 1816 became known as the "year without a summer.")

Mary and her companions—including her infant son, William, and her step-sister, Claire Clairmont—were forced to spend their time indoors, huddled around the fireplace, reading and telling stories. As storm after storm raged outside, Byron proposed that they each write a ghost story. A few of them tried; today, Mary's story is the one we remember.

THE SCIENCE THAT INSPIRED SHELLEY

lithograph for the 1823 production of the play Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein
A lithograph for the 1823 production of the play Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, inspired by Shelley's novel.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Frankenstein is, of course, a work of fiction, but a good deal of real-life science informed Shelley's masterpiece, beginning with the adventure story that frames Victor Frankenstein's tale: that of Captain Walton's voyage to the Arctic. Walton hopes to reach the North Pole (a goal that no one would achieve in real life for almost another century) where he might "discover the wondrous power that attracts the needle"—referring to the then-mysterious force of magnetism. The magnetic compass was a vital tool for navigation, and it was understood that the Earth itself somehow functioned like a magnet; however, no one could say how and why compasses worked, and why the magnetic poles differed from the geographical poles.

It's not surprising that Shelley would have incorporated this quest into her story. "The links between electricity and magnetism was a major subject of investigation during Mary's lifetime, and a number of expeditions departed for the North and South Poles in the hopes of discovering the secrets of the planet's magnetic field," writes Nicole Herbots in the 2017 book Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds

Victor recounts to Walton that, as a student at the University of Ingolstadt (which still exists), he was drawn to chemistry, but one of his instructors, the worldly and affable Professor Waldman, encouraged him to leave no branch of science unexplored. Today scientists are highly specialized, but a scientist in Shelley's time might have a broad scope. Waldman advises Victor: "A man would make but a very sorry chemist if he attended to that department of human knowledge alone. If your wish is to become really a man of science, and not merely a petty experimentalist, I should advise you to apply to every branch of natural philosophy, including mathematics."

But the topic that most commands Victor's attention is the nature of life itself: "the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?" It is a problem that science is on the brink of solving, Victor says, "if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries."

In the era that Shelley wrote these words, the subject of what, exactly, differentiates living things from inanimate matter was the focus of impassioned debate. John Abernethy, a professor at London's Royal College of Surgeons, argued for a materialist account of life, while his pupil, William Lawrence, was a proponent of "vitalism," a kind of life force, an "invisible substance, analogous to on the one hand to the soul and on the other to electricity."

Another key thinker, the chemist Sir Humphry Davy, proposed just such a life force, which he imagined as a chemical force similar to heat or electricity. Davy's public lectures at the Royal Institution in London were a popular entertainment, and the young Shelley attended these lectures with her father. Davy remained influential: in October 1816, when she was writing Frankenstein almost daily, Shelley noted in her diary that she was simultaneously reading Davy's Elements of Chemical Philosophy.

Davy also believed in the power of science to improve the human condition—a power that had only just been tapped. Victor Frankenstein echoes these sentiments: Scientists "have indeed performed miracles," he says. "They penetrate into the recesses of Nature, and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited Powers …"

Victor pledges to probe even further, to discover new knowledge: "I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown Powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of Creation."

FROM EVOLUTION TO ELECTRICITY

Closely related to the problem of life was the question of "spontaneous generation," the (alleged) sudden appearance of life from non-living matter. Erasumus Darwin was a key figure in the study of spontaneous generation. He, like his grandson Charles, wrote about evolution, suggesting that all life descended from a single origin.

Erasmus Darwin is the only real-life scientist to be mentioned by name in the introduction to Shelley's novel. There, she claims that Darwin "preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with a voluntary motion." She adds: "Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endured with vital warmth." (Scholars note that "vermicelli" could be a misreading of Vorticellae—microscopic aquatic organisms that Darwin is known to have worked with; he wasn't bringing Italian pasta to life.)

Victor pursues his quest for the spark of life with unrelenting zeal. First he "became acquainted with the science of anatomy: but this was not sufficient; I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body." He eventually succeeds "in discovering the cause of the generation of life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter."

page from original draft of Frankenstein
A page from the original draft of Frankenstein.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To her credit, Shelley does not attempt to explain what the secret is—better to leave it to the reader's imagination—but it is clear that it involves the still-new science of electricity; it is this, above all, which entices Victor.

In Shelley's time, scientists were just beginning to learn how to store and make use of electrical energy. In Italy, in 1799, Allesandro Volta had developed the "electric pile," an early kind of battery. A little earlier, in the 1780s, his countryman Luigi Galvani claimed to have discovered a new form of electricity, based on his experiments with animals (hence the term "galvanism" mentioned above). Famously, Galvani was able to make a dead frog's leg twitch by passing an electrical current through it.

And then there's Giovanni Aldini—a nephew of Galvani—who experimented with the body of a hanged criminal, in London, in 1803. (This was long before people routinely donated their bodies to science, so deceased criminals were a prime source of research.) In Shelley's novel, Victor goes one step further, sneaking into cemeteries to experiment on corpses: "… a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life … Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay, and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel-houses."

Electrical experimentation wasn't just for the dead; in London, electrical "therapies" were all the rage—people with various ailments sought them out, and some were allegedly cured. So the idea that the dead might come back to life through some sort of electrical manipulation struck many people as plausible, or at least worthy of scientific investigation.

One more scientific figure deserves a mention: a now nearly forgotten German physiologist named Johann Wilhelm Ritter. Like Volta and Galvani, Ritter worked with electricity and experimented with batteries; he also studied optics and deduced the existence of ultraviolet radiation. Davy followed Ritter's work with interest. But just as Ritter was making a name for himself, something snapped. He grew distant from his friends and family; his students left him. In the end he appears to have had a mental breakdown. In The Age of Wonder, author Richard Holmes writes that this now-obscure German may have been the model for the passionate, obsessive Victor Frankenstein.

A CAUTIONARY TALE ABOUT HUMAN NATURE, NOT SCIENCE

Plate from 1922 edition of Frankenstein
A Plate from 1922 edition of Frankenstein.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In time, Victor Frankenstein came to be seen as the quintessential mad scientist, the first example of what would become a common Hollywood trope. Victor is so absorbed by his laboratory travails that he failed to see the repercussions of his work; when he realizes what he has unleashed on the world, he is overcome with remorse.

And yet scholars who study Shelley don't interpret this remorse as evidence of Shelley's feelings about science as a whole. As the editors of Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds write, "Frankenstein is unequivocally not an antiscience screed."

We should remember that the creature in Shelley's novel is at first a gentle, amicable being who enjoyed reading Paradise Lost and philosophizing on his place in the cosmos. It is the ill-treatment he receives at the hands of his fellow citizens that changes his disposition. At every turn, they recoil from him in horror; he is forced to live the life of an outcast. It is only then, in response to cruelty, that his killing spree begins.

"Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded," the creature laments to his creator, Victor. "I was benevolent and good—misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous."

But Victor does not act to ease the creature's suffering. Though he briefly returns to his laboratory to build a female companion for the creature, he soon changes his mind and destroys this second being, fearing that "a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth." He vows to hunt and kill his creation, pursuing the creature "until he or I shall perish in mortal conflict."

Victor Frankenstein's failing, one might argue, wasn't his over-zealousness for science, or his desire to "play God." Rather, he falters in failing to empathize with the creature he created. The problem is not in Victor's head but in his heart.

Here’s What You Need to Know About the New Coronavirus

jarun011/iStock via Getty Images
jarun011/iStock via Getty Images

This morning, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the second case of the recently discovered coronavirus in the U.S. Find out what it is, where it is, how to avoid it, and all the other need-to-know information about the illness below.

What is the new coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a group of viruses named for the crown-shaped spikes that cover their surfaces (corona is the Latin word for crown). According to the CDC, human coronaviruses can cause upper-respiratory tract illnesses, including the common cold, and can sometimes lead to more severe lower-respiratory tract issues like pneumonia or bronchitis.

Because this latest coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, is so new, health officials are currently trying to figure out how it works and how to treat it. It’s not the first time a potent new coronavirus has caused an international outbreak: SARS-CoV originated in Asia and spread to more than two dozen countries in 2003, and MERS-CoV first infected people in Saudi Arabia before spreading across the globe in 2012.

Where is the coronavirus outbreak happening?

The majority of cases are in China, which counts more than 800 confirmed diagnoses. Most are in Wuhan, a city in China’s Hubei province where 2019-nCoV was first detected last month. Additional cases have been reported in South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The CDC has confirmed two U.S. cases—a man in his thirties outside Seattle, and a 60-year-old woman in Chicago—both of whom had recently returned from trips to Wuhan. A CDC official said another 63 potential cases are being investigated in 22 states, and airports in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and San Francisco are conducting health screenings on passengers arriving from China.

Chinese officials have shut down transportation to and from Wuhan. Tourist spots like Beijing’s Forbidden City, Shanghai Disneyland, and a portion of the Great Wall are also closed temporarily.

What are the symptoms of the new coronavirus?

Symptoms are similar to those caused by a cold or the flu, including fever, dry cough, and breathing difficulty. The New York Times reported that as of Friday morning, 25 people in China have died from the virus, and most of them were older men with preexisting health conditions like cirrhosis, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease.

How does the new coronavirus spread?

Because most of the early cases of 2019-nCoV were traced back to a seafood and meat market in Wuhan, health officials think the virus originally spread from infected animals to humans, but it’s now being transmitted from person to person.

Though scientists are still studying exactly how that happens, the leading theory is that it travels in tiny droplets of fluid from the respiratory tract when a person coughs or sneezes.

How do you avoid the new coronavirus?

The CDC is warning everyone to avoid any nonessential trips to Wuhan, and to avoid animals or sick people if you’re traveling elsewhere in China. If you’ve been to China in the last two weeks and experience any of the symptoms listed above, you should seek medical attention immediately—and you should call the doctor’s office or emergency room beforehand to let them know you’re coming.

Otherwise, simply stick to the precautions you’d normally take when trying to stay healthy: Wash your hands often with soap and water, cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, stay away from sick people, and thoroughly cook any meat or eggs before eating them.

Should you be worried about the new coronavirus?

The global health community is taking 2019-nCoV seriously in order to curb the outbreak as quickly as possible, but you shouldn’t panic. The CDC maintains that it’s a low-risk situation in the U.S., and public health officials are echoing that message.

“We don’t want the American public to be worried about this, because their risk is low,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told USA Today.

[h/t USA Today]

Has An Element Ever Been Removed From the Periodic Table?

lucadp/iStock via Getty Images
lucadp/iStock via Getty Images

Barry Gehm:

Yes, didymium, or Di. It was discovered by Carl Mosander in 1841, and he named it didymium from the Greek word didymos, meaning twin, because it was almost identical to lanthanum in its properties. In 1879, a French chemist showed that Mosander’s didymium contained samarium as well as an unknown element. In 1885, Carl von Weisbach showed that the unknown element was actually two elements, which he isolated and named praseodidymium and neodidymium (although the di syllable was soon dropped). Ironically, the twin turned out to be twins.

The term didymium filter is still used to refer to welding glasses colored with a mixture of neodymium and praseodymium oxides.

One might cite as other examples various claims to have created/discovered synthetic elements. Probably the best example of this would be masurium (element 43), which a team of German chemists claimed to have discovered in columbium (now known as niobium) ore in 1925. The claim was controversial and other workers could not replicate it, but some literature from the period does list it among the elements.

In 1936, Emilio Segrè and Carlo Perrier isolated element 43 from molybdenum foil that had been used in a cyclotron; they named it technetium. Even the longest-lived isotopes of technetium have a short half-life by geological standards (millions of years) and it has only ever been found naturally in minute traces as a product of spontaneous uranium fission. For this reason, the original claim of discovery (as masurium) is almost universally regarded as erroneous.

As far as I know, in none of these cases with synthetic elements has anyone actually produced a quantity of the element that one could see and weigh that later turned out not to be an element, in contrast to the case with didymium. (In the case of masurium, for instance, the only evidence of its existence was a faint x-ray signal at a specific wavelength.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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